Anniversary 28 years as a freelance writer

Today a little story beside the tech stuff, something personally. This morning I was awakening and realized, it was October the 1st in 2021 – so I'm now 28 years in business as a freelance book writer and now also tech blogger. It has a long journey since I've published the first articles about computer in a tech magazine, back in 1985.


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The first salary was already in 1985 for my first publications in journals. It was probably what junkies call "feeding". Influencers didn't exist yet in the late 80s, so I decided to become rich and famous and started with my first IT book in 1988. Unfortunately, it didn't work out with the first title to become one of the rich and famous. So I had to write another book, and another book, and another book …

… later I decided, to left my job as engineer in the lower management of a company and become a freelance writer. I still remember very clearly how I had been thinking about that step since 1992. When I dropped this idea about writing as a freelancer with the managing director of a new publishing house, I was offered the chance to write exclusively for that publisher and receive a guaranteed fee per year. I thought about it for a while.

I still see the image of the evening when the decision was made. I was sitting on a sun lounger on the beach in Spanish island Mallorca after dinner, my two little children were playing in the sand and I asked my wife "should I risk it …". She said "jump, I don't want you sitting around here at 50 whining why you didn't try. If it goes wrong, you'll just have to go back to work …".

Almost drowned and collided with Boris Yeltsin

Well, as it is with many a startup, not everything goes smoothly. I had my run and was able to write a lot of books on highly interesting topics (including Word and Excel) as well as computer books for children's – the basis for many new projects. There was only one problem: I could have written as much as I wanted, but the royalties would never have exceeded the guarantee fee. On the other hand, I knew what I could earn with successful titles. A classic situation of being driven up against the wall.

So the real jump into cold water came, the exclusive contract was cancelled by mutual agreement, and there were no longer any guarantee payments either. That was the phase when for half a year not a nickel of income came in. It looked like "jumped into the deep and sank at the end of the day". But with cars, there's the effect of "you give it full throttle and suddenly release the handbrake, then the car takes a leap forward". The release from the exclusive contract was, figuratively speaking, the released handbrake, and I was finally able to tackle new book projects with other publishers again.

In the same year, a revised book on Windows 3.1 was already enough to turn and come out financially with reasonable figures. The news that I was again free to write for other publishers resulted in interesting offers and very interesting projects. I had shown with my computer books for children that I could also write for beginners. They were so good that someone copied them almost word for word and sold them at discounter Aldi. I was blindsided when my wife came home from shopping and said "your children's books are in the promotional bins at Aldi, but you're not listed as the author". Went right over and saw that it was plagiarism. The publisher even got an injunction, the books came out of sale again, but were allowed to be sold again much later. Only I never saw a cent in compensation …. Lowlands of authoring.


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But the children's computer books (I had used my kids as beta testers) opened doors for me. So I got the opportunity to write an absolute beginner's book on Windows 95 (because I had shown with my children's computer books that I can do more than just insider titles on programming or MS-DOS internals). The title was written within 3 weeks at a stretch – I wrote it almost continuously. And a few weeks after it was published, I almost had a stroke. While visiting my parents, I was leafing through news paper, which my father bought regularly. And suddenly I saw a quarter page with my book title as a review of the book of the week. The book sold almost 100,000 copies – my bad luck was that Windows 98 came out two weeks too early, otherwise I would have cracked the threshold (so, as I remember, about 300 copies sold were short of that magic number).

It was a really great time, with great projects. I also convinced an US editor from Microsoft Press to do a Windows 95 registry title with me. The title was later also available for Windows 98, and was probably also passed around in Windows development. At some point I was asked if Microsoft could include parts of this book in its "Windows 98 Resource Kit". And so I am possibly the only German author who has contributed a complete chapter to a technical reference.

Internationale Windows Registry-Titel von Günter Born
International Windows 3.1 and Windows Registry titles

The above photo shows some international editions of the Registry book in various languages and a Windows 3.1 title in Polish. I was particularly pleased with the Japanese title, as I have a special relationship with this country after several visits for working there.

Many IT books have followed since the early days of my freelancing – I've stopped counting, but with revised new editions and translations, it must have been around 300 titles. There have been highs, there have been lows, and there have been collisions with world politics. The division of Microsoft into two divisions for Windows and for Office by the U.S. antitrust authorities affected my authoring for Microsoft Press USA. After a rather unsuccessful project on the Windows Scripting Host, I froze the whole thing in 2000 – a good decision, because after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, nothing worked with the USA anymore.

And there was my collision with the perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev and the consequences of the time of Boris Yeltsin. I had already published the first versions of my file format manual at Addison Wesley in the early 90s. Later, the English version was published by International Thomson Publishing in the form of a tome of over 1,000 pages. Was a worldwide standard. Addison Wesley had sold the rights for the 2nd German edition for Russia to a Russian offshoot of BHV Publishing. I still have the book, printed on recycled paper in Cyrillic, in my closet (the top line of the following picture shows my name).

Russische Ausgabe des Dateiformatehandbuchs von Günter Born
Russian edition of the file format handbook

Was of course a terrific success, first international title – World I'm Coming, Pulitzer Prize, heck, Nobel Prize for Literature within reach, we're flying to the stars … and I had already had catalogs from Rolls Royce and Jaguar sent to me. The books translation should bring an one-time payment of 6,000 US dollars for the transfer of the rights. If the publisher and the author had shared half – it would have been enough for the Rolls key fob.

But as it often happens when flying to the stars: the crash is just around the corner. Wasn't so relevant financially in this case. But due to the turmoil of the Yeltsin years, the Soviet Union had run out of foreign currency. The Russian publishing house was unable to raise the 6,000 U.S. dollars that they would have liked to pay in rubles as foreign exchange and transfer the sum to the West. I never saw a penny of it.

Father and son

I still have some very nice memories of those 28 years concerning my son. I had already used him as a beta tester for my children's computer books – and from the age of 14 he was engaged to maintain my website at that time in exchange for larger pocket money (I wanted to let him get a taste of the world of technology and to teach him that you have to work for money).

Started but with a real frustration pack for me. So in 1996 I had laboriously worked out the necessary basics in HTML 1.x or 2.0 over 6 weeks and had written a first booklet about this markup language, in which the first web pages were created. So a while later I sat down with Junior, put this booklet on his desk and started to explain to him how to create web pages in HTML with a simple editor and then upload them to the CompuServe webspace for my homepage.

The idea was "well, in 2 hours he'll have the first lesson, maybe you have to let him practice for another week and give him a hand" – just like an old father has his ideas. After about 30 minutes he said "it's good, I got it, you can leave now". I left his quite shocked. "It took you 6 weeks to understand everything, and your son gets it in half an hour. I think you are getting old …". Yes, and son had really grasped it, at HTML I hardly needed to support him, if something was unclear, he asked.

And then there were the famous book projects. When the son was in the last semester of his studies, I had the idea to write a developer book about Visual Basic and to include the son as a co-author. In this project, however, he only worked on one chapter because he suddenly got his diploma thesis and lacked the time to collaborate. After graduating in electrical engineering, my son was looking for a job. At the beginning of this phase he came to my office every hour: Don't you have something about Linux? Don't you have something on C and C++ and so on. And suddenly the idea came to me: Couldn't we prepare the material of the Visual Basic developer book for Visual C#? Neither of us had any idea about Visual C#, but a quick call to the publisher and the project was basically a go.

And so it happened that we wrote a second book together. Whereby: The text was already available in large parts from the VB title – but the examples had to be ported. I had given my son the task to do exactly this porting. For this purpose, I had provided him with the examples via network, set up a Visual Studio development environment and left the order "see what works". When I checked half an hour later, someone sat quite dismayed at the computer and said "but that's already a huge job to port all the code, I don't think I can do that …".

"What are you grinning at?" came his 2nd question and I answered "let me have a look at the computer". Briefly searched for the term "Visual Basic to Visual C# converter" and loaded the tool on his disk with the remark "try it with this". Then I left the freshly graduated engineer to himself. After half an hour he came into my office and said "that works". I then split the examples from the book chapters in half and gave him the 50 percent of the code to work on. The rest and the revision of the manuscript text was to be my job.

Gave then an interesting experience. At the age of 50, it took me twice as long to revise the examples as it did my son. He was finished within a very short time. Unfortunately, when I looked at the ported examples and the code, there were a lot of bugs in it, so that he needed two or three runs for reworking each time. At the end of the day, it took both of us pretty much the same amount of time to port the examples. The youth did have a speed advantage. But my experience resulted in the examples running and being ready in the first shot.

Postscript – the book came out, but didn't make us rich – I had long since put the Rolls Royce and Jaguar catalogs in the waste paper bin. But my strategy was different: It doesn't look bad. if my son is named as a co-author on two book titles. During one of his job interviews, he was asked by the specialist whether he had possibly knowledge in Visual C#. They wanted to start new software projects with this language soon. When my son mentioned "Just wrote the title … with my father", he had the job.

Entwicklerpress-Titel

So in 2008 I wrote another beginner's booklet on Visual Basic with him, but then withdraw from programming and writing programming language books. Today my son is an experienced .NET developer, and about a decade after our book project, he was on a training course to learn the final intricacies of Visual C#. When he told me this during a visit, I asked what he would change from our Visual C# developer's guide in retrospect. And my son said I would write maybe five to six pages differently today and then weave in more on the topic of xyz on those pages, we were already pretty good on the rest, it fits. I was pretty gobsmacked at the answer, because at the time we wrote the title, neither of us had any knowledge about this programming language. Not bad at all.

Of course, there is also the running gag, when the son had a new girfriend and showed up at her parents' house for the first time. During one of these encounters, their highly educated father asked the probing question of which family he came from and what his father works. The son had discovered the family's bookshelf, casually reached into a shelf with "may I", pulled out a book and said, "My father is the guy who writes these things here. That terminates all further probing questions.

The End …

Well, and now I can look back on 28 awesome professional years as a freelance writer in the IT sector with many ups and downs. I had to reinvent myself all the time, but I never got bored. My saying "I turned my hobby into a profession and have never had to work since" has somehow come true. I had phases, where I work hard, but it was always more pleasure than burden.

Well, since May 2007 I'm still blogging, so I'm in the 14th year – and can even live from it since 2016. So now I look back on 28 years, which I would never have dreamed of in their diversity on October 1, 1993. Since March 1st, 2021, I'm kind of retired. bit still to young to sit in an armchair and wait for the end of the day. So I'm planning, to keep my blogs still a while alive.

At this point, a big thank you to my readership (books and blogs). Without you, none of this would have been possible – and this also applies in particular to my return to life after my serious sports accident in March 2015 (spine injury in my neck with partly paralyzed arms and legs – but I managed it after 18 months to re-use my arms and are able to walk and join my sports activities again). What a rocky road to hell … but I would never miss a second of it.


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